Spearhead Analysis – 30.01.2017
By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Owing its importance, to the various claims of large oil and gas reserves and serving as a second global key trade route; the South China Sea holds several disputes due to overlapping territorial claims, pertaining to nearly 250 islands and other ocean features.
China from its east. Claims a massive portion under its 9-dash line demarcation, while Taiwan claims the next largest area.
Therefore involving China and Taiwan in nearly all coinciding disputes.
However, the most daunting of the various disputes— in the recent past— have been:
China-Taiwan and Vietnamese claims on the waters adjacent to the west of Spratly islands— The island bodies also, remain disputed amongst all ASEAN countries and China.
The Scarborough Shoal disputes –claimed by China, Philippines, and Taiwan
The waters adjoining Paracel islands — the islands have remained under the chinese control since 1970- but are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam
The region witnessed multiple disputes since 1945 till well into late 90’s.
However, the exponential strengthening of the three core areas of ASEAN- namely, political , economic and social security—stemming primarily from stability in this key route —along with the South East Asian push to further integrate the region by forming several broader multilateral organisations , led to an agreement over code of conduct in the South China Sea in 2002.
A relative rest over disputes was witnessed, until China objected to the exploration projects initiated by US oil companies along with Vietnam, in the disputed waters west of Spratly islands. Most projects were rolled back- apart from Exxon’s, overseen by Rix Tillerson at the time.
Following this event; several back and forth ‘violations’ by China, Philipines, US, and Vietnam surged.
Vietnam, in hopes of expanding rights of fishing and exploiting other resource rich areas, decided to dabble in the disputed territories. While, the US claims of violations to freedom of navigation of vessels caused it to test its own limits.
But, tensions between China and Philippines- in the time frame of 2012-2016- greatly levelled up, especially after the 2012 joint US-Philippines exercises. Alongside dragging in several others.
Relations worsened when China began developing its artificial islands in the disputed Spratly zone– several analysts believe, that the new islands would serve military purposes, though in China’s discourse it denies any such reasons and has halted any new island building.
Yet, it prompted Philippines to drag China to the permanent court of arbitration in 2015– challenging China’s 9-dash line. And to Philippines success, the court in 2016 nullified China’s claims. However, the Chinese do not accept this ruling.
It appears that the heightened tensions which peaked by the mid of 2016 nearly brought the region at the brink of collapse; as: South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, US, malaysia( which in the past was constantly calling for peace), India, China, Vietnam , Philippines –all became propagators of multiple antagonizing acts and violations.
Presently the challenges to north and south east Asia appear in the form of : 1. Enduring Commitment to multilateralism especially– amongst ASEAN and 4 tigers. 2. Role of the tiger cubs- mainly- Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.3. Redefining the lines between regional stability and external friendships.
The ASEAN/ 4 tigers rebalance:
It appears that– a prime focus on socio- economic development– headed by some ASEAN members and the 4 asian tigers , has enabled them , to retain a wholesome approach in its global relations by not explicitly aligning them behind a certain state.
Which in turn, grants the entire North and Southeast Asian(maybe even South Asian) region, with a chance to adapt a more independent foreign policy approach in dealing with the China-US rift and perhaps even enables them to play an active role in mending the fracture- the mutually detrimental impacts of not doing so- should be considered.
The guardians of the key straits, i.e: Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia– despite whatsoever grievances have crafted a delicate balance of ties between the US and China- in order to form peaceful and mutually beneficial ties.
Despite, the sensitivities over the ‘one country, two systems’ and Chinese apprehensions of Western influence; HK and Taiwan-(though, in the recent has held certain grievances over China overshadowing it in several areas of export goods)– , too have worked on increasing economic interdependency.
However, it must also be noticed that despite the initial raging nationalism; regional cooperation in the form of creating a key multilateral organisation i.e ASEAN -was created at the onset of embarking on an upward journey, several disputes have been placed aside under the umbrella of -clearer and open communication and developments of common visions.
And has led to further increasing regional interdependence, by creating ‘broader offshoots’ such as ASEAN+3 and +6, APEC, East Asia summit, various development banks ( the concept appears to be surging up in South Asia too- but outcomes appear less fruitful so far).
Though, these organisations consider economic development as the focal point , it automatically links up common security as well. As security serves as a major precursor to economic development. The Asian Tigers too share a coherency in desired outcomes– may it be in the form of Confucian principles or mutually agreed upon economic development framework.
However, Most of these core regions are either archipelagos and if not— they at least carry their major hubs in coastal zones.
So therefore, The ASEAN and the 4 tigers may need to collaborate in devising a strategy to secure these waterways and create a balance; by in engaging both belligerents in constructive opportunities– primarily via the regional multilateral systems– as a precaution against any regional misunderstanding that may stem from bilateralism at such a sensitive time. As, a minor glimpse of the widespread impact–as a result of escalation– was witnessed in 2016.
Role of the cubs:
Though the tiger cubs claim to follow the development models set forth by the predecessors, few such as Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand, fall short on the vision -owing to political turmoil , which has paved way for various national security concerns. An abrupt discontinuation in policies which stems from abrupt political changes also poses a challenge over commitment to multilateralism.
Rodrigo Duterte’s entrance on the global stage in July 2016, witnessed an almost immediate pull back from a complete aggressive stance against the Chinese; and this years ASEAN chairmanship is also granted to him.
Regardless of how he chooses to deal with his country’s internal issues– it should be ensured that exploitation of trigger points for national advantage is avoided and instead common elixirs to cure national crises are consulted on via ket institutions . A chain of events which followed, Vietnam’s attempt to explore disputed territories clearly manifests the risky outcomes.
But, nationalism is serious business in most Asian nations; and these cubs are no different in their views. The limits placed on sovereignty due to multilateralism has remained a debated issue In South East Asia.
But, it must be realised that the region continues to be – a very uncertain and sensitive zone . Because apart from the innumerable regional disputes . The Sea- especially- has also turned into an arena for major powers to try to checkmate the other. Therefore, individual nationalism may have to take a back seat for sometime.
The new leadership in Philippines , during its initial days , appears to have sent shockwaves. The calls for resources sharing in the disputed territories, threats to withdraw from the Enhanced Defense Cooperation agreement , enhancing ties with Russia– while still raising ’ toned-down’ suspicions against Chinese activities in Spratly Islands. Has so far– drastically increased the Chinese investments in the Philippines and has alongside- also enabled them to gain an increase in defense aid/development for Philippines.
Though, this may not be so different from the path of the predecessors and in its own unique way also creates a balance; but political turmoil and rampant crimes and other issues open up rooms for various proxies ; which may enlarge someone else’s’ “ justification for use of force”- list.
Redefining the lines:
Another issue which appears to add fuel to fire, is the growing divide over – who is a friend and who is not- Apart from the obvious divide in tilts towards US or China.
Given the thriving multiculturalism of the North and South East Asian region ; the role of the ‘’demi-gods’ appears to be surging mixed sentiments. Which manifested itself over the Indian attempts to help out in the Straits security management; and while some welcomed it, others threw tantrums.
Similar divides over Japan’s stance on China’s position in South China Sea can also be noticed— Some support Japan and stand by its stance, while others declare that China does not maintain an aggressive posture and should lead the South China Sea patrolling and security. So again, what stands within the concerned region would have to supercede any other offshooting ties, which again perhaps may be witnessed if solutions via the multilateral dialogue are reached.
In conclusion, to retain its non alignment advantage north and south east Asia , would need to enhance regional multilateral dialogues and cooperation.
Vigilance would be required– especially since the New US administration appears to deem more value to bilateralism. With the TPP out the window , individual / cost effective leverages would most likely replace a unanimous growth approach.
However , future implications( good or bad)- of any bilateral deals even with the ‘Demi gods ‘- on regional security would have to be analyzed by these regional players. And ideally, consultation on core issues such as regional security should be carried out via the organisations in place.